Saturday, September 07, 2013

Worth Playing For? (Rerun)

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever watched Survivor? Those who have will know that Survivor is a reality TV game-show, where a bunch of people happily bid farewell to family and friends, and allow themselves to be stranded for more than a month at some remote location. Where they are left to fend for themselves, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Not only do they have to construct their own shelters, and catch and cook their own food, they also have to compete with one another in physically-demanding and mentally-draining challenges, in an effort to keep from getting voted off the game. In the words of the show’s tagline, they have to outwit, outplay and outlast one another. It’s not a game for softies. As the days go by, and more and more of them get voted off, the remaining participants grow visibly thinner and thinner for lack of nourishment. Some get sick or injured. Others suffer emotional breakdowns. And all of this on national television.

Even so, despite the incredibly difficult conditions, there is no shortage of people eager to play. The show is already entering its 27th season! Why do people do it? The reason is quite obvious. Not only do they stand a chance of winning a million US dollars, players also attain instant celebrity status. Their suffering is not for nothing. Which is also something the show’s host, Jeff Probst, continually reminds the participants. At the start of each challenge, after having shown the players what they stand to win, Jeff always asks them the same question in three words: worth playing for? Is this prize worth giving up the company of family and friends for? Is this worth being exposed to the elements and starving yourself half to death for? In almost all cases, the survivors’ answer is yes. Yes, it is worth playing for.

And, like the survivors, we Christians also need continually to ask ourselves a similar question. For, if our Mass readings today are anything to go by, it would seem that the Christian life is not any less demanding than Survivor. As Jesus, our host in today’s gospel reading, tells us: If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple. Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. The demand sounds blunt and uncompromising. The word hate is used to emphasise that in all situations, the Christian must act in such a way as to place the Lord first. Above even family and self. This is, of course, not an easy thing to do. Which is why, Jesus insists that those of us who wish to follow him need to examine our commitment. Like the survivors, we must continually ask ourselves the question, Is it worth playing for?

But, in order to answer this question, we need first to consider a little more closely–to appreciate a little better–the nature of this game we are playing. What exactly is it we are being asked to sacrifice? And for what reward? To begin with, notice how Jesus ends his speech in today’s gospel with a call to renunciation. None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions. With this statement, Jesus helps us to understand what it means for a Christian to hate family and friends, and even his or her own life.

Could it be that what we are being called to hate–what we are being asked to give up–is not so much our family and our life as such, but rather our tendency to see and to treat everything and everybody, including our own lives, as mere possessions? As things that we own? Isn’t this what is happening, for example, when some spouses or siblings take each other for granted? When they ignore or neglect or mistreat one another? Or when some parents pressure their children to fulfil the parents’ own dreams? Overloading them with unreasonable expectations and unbearably heavy schedules and responsibilities? Or when grown children fight with one another over their inheritance? Tearing the family apart in the process? Or when individuals overwork themselves, for whatever reason? To the point of physical and emotional burnout? In such situations, and many more, aren’t people relating to one another, and to themselves, only in terms of possessions? Only as objects of ownership? As things to use and abuse?

Our readings help us to see what happens when this is done. When we relate to things and to people only as possessions, everything and everyone in our lives somehow turn into obstacles that prevent us from knowing and fulfilling God’s plan for us. Much like what the first reading tells us about our material existence: a perishable body presses down the soul, and this tent of clay weighs down the teeming mind, such that we are unable to know the intentions of God. Unable to divine the will of the Lord. Which is why, in order to seek and to fulfil God’s will for us, we must first be willing to give up our possessions. To allow God’s holy spirit from above to transform our relationships. So that they are no longer obstacles but pathways to God.

Isn’t this also what Paul is asking Philemon to do in the second reading? Writing from prison, Paul asks his friend to renounce his right of ownership over Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus. Whom Paul had met in prison and converted to Christianity. According to Paul, if he is willing to do this, Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus will be transformed. Paul writes: I know you have been deprived of Onesimus for a time, but it was only so that you could have him back for ever, not as a slave any more, but something much better than a slave, a dear brother…. a blood-brother as well as a brother in the Lord. What Paul is asking Philemon to do is to renounce a material possession, in order to gain a heavenly relative. By giving up his claim of ownership over Onesimus, Philemon will be fulfilling God’s plan. He will be allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the obstacle of slavery into a pathway of love in the Lord. But, for this to happen, much depends upon whether or not Philemon is free enough to say yes. Like the players of Survivor, much depends upon how Philemon answers the question: Is this new relationship with Onesimus worth playing for?

It thus becomes clear, sisters and brothers, that the reward we Christians are playing for consists in the very things that we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer. You will recall that we asked God to enable us to receive true freedom and an everlasting inheritance. The inheritance that is ours as adopted sons and daughters of God. The inheritance that is the Kingdom of God, whose coming Jesus proclaimed. The Kingdom, in which all bonds of domination and ownership are transformed into relationships of love in the Lord. The Kingdom, where people are no longer sold into slavery.  No longer forced to leave family and friends, in order to find work as undocumented migrants in foreign lands. Under unsafe conditions. For less than a living wage. In this Kingdom, chemical weapons are no longer used on anyone, much less on innocent civilians. In this Kingdom, violence is no longer an option for the resolution of disputes. International or interpersonal. In this Kingdom, peace and justice prevails, because the love of God permeates everything, everyone, everywhere.

Sisters and brothers, there are many people who are willing to endure considerable suffering just for the chance of winning a million US dollars – before tax – and the title of Sole Survivor. Can we who call ourselves Christian do any less? Especially when what’s at stake is the Kingdom of God?

Sisters and brothers, in the concrete situations of our lives, as individuals and as church, God continues to invite us to make a choice for the Kingdom. So what do you think? Is it worth playing for today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord, You have called us to TRUE FREEDOM as sons and daughters of God our Father.

    Help us to realise and become more (fully) AWARE of our true IDENTITY IN YOU.

    Teach us to look to You and to dare to let go of all (people, things and situations) that draw us AWAY from YOU and YOUR WILL.

    YES, LORD, YOU ARE WORTH all of our living (and dying) for, as YOU ARE OUR ONLY SOURCE OF HOPE in this secular and godless world.

    Like St Peter, I would pray "Lord, You are the SOURCE of ETERNAL LIFE, to whom shall I go?"

    Seeing Is Believing
    8 September 2013


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